With My Child Incarcerated During a Pandemic, I Spend Mother’s Day in Fear

This Mother’s Day, with a son in prison, I anticipate one of the most frightening and tear-filled days of my life. There is nothing more traumatic than knowing that your child is sitting in a cold cell, openly threatened with the possibility of contracting the new coronavirus.

Please spare me the talk of this virus being “the great equalizer.” By now, it should be clear that Black Americans have been the most devastated by COVID-19. Although Black Americans comprise only 29 percent of Chicago’s population, we are 72 percent of the city’s COVID-19 deaths. Some equalizer. Nobody wants to win the race to be six feet under.

Reports from our loved ones inside the prisons are just as terrifying as these statistics. The already horrific and unsanitary conditions inside have been exacerbated by the virus and illuminate what we have long said: Prison is a death trap.

Before the pandemic, my son Tamon Russell would call me every day and we would have a video visit at least once a week. This is not the case now. Extreme limitations have been placed on incarcerated individuals. Currently, my son and others incarcerated at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Illinois, are only allowed to leave their cells twice a week to shower or use the phone for 30 minutes. During one of our calls, Tamon said he noticed a sign posted two cells across from his that read: “Quarantined — Do Not Open.” Tamon and others tried to obtain information on what was happening, but prison authorities would not divulge details. Of course, everyone fears the worst and suspects that someone inside the cell has COVID-19 and can only be seen by medical personnel.

Some media reports have wrongly indicated our children are being taken care of and equipped with hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. Yes, the National Guard medics stationed at the facility are taking the temperatures of our loved ones twice a day and wiping down the bars of each cell. But it is not enough! More intentional and painstaking precautions need to be taken to prevent our loved ones from contracting the virus and dying, including releasing them to go home to their families.

My son is medically compromised. He suffers from asthma and high cholesterol, meaning he is at a higher risk from the virus. I, too, am coping with my own illness, but my pain and anger at how my son and other incarcerated individuals are being treated during this pandemic has fueled my resistance. My focus on freeing my son and others wrongfully convicted has become my occupation.

As the only child of a divorced Black woman in a middle-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, I learned at an early age that Black and Brown people were treated differently than whites. I was always told you must work for everything you get.

My mother was the chief union steward with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which meant I would attend union meetings and protests with her regarding the unfair working practices of her employer. She was very outspoken and would stand up for anyone who was being treat unfairly, no matter their race. At those meetings, I would witness employees demanding better working conditions, pay and respect from management. Five decades later we are demanding the same rights.

It was no surprise that I followed in her footsteps and became elected union steward. I have served on the executive board and on the negotiation team at SEIU Local 73, the Service Employees International Union, for over 15 years. We have continued the fight for all workers’ rights.

When Joe Iosbaker, my friend and union brother, invited me to attend a meeting with the organization Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), I didn’t know what to expect.

At CAARPR I quickly came to support the legislative effort to establish a Civilian Police Accountability Commission (CPAC) to hold the Chicago Police Department accountable for crimes against people of color. CPAC would help secure justice for those wrongly convicted and for victims of police torture resulting in the signing of false confessions.

I can relate to those wrongly convicted because Tamon has been incarcerated for 19 years for a crime he didn’t commit. The night he was arrested, the officer in charge of the precinct where he was falsely implicated for murder was Raymond Madigan. Madigan was part of the gang of torturers under Commander Jon Burge.

Only a few years ago, I learned that another member of Local 73 had her son taken from her by the Burge gang. Armanda Shackelford’s son, Gerald Reed, was tortured into confessing to murder.

Tamon was incarcerated despite the lack of any physical evidence against him. He was held for 19 hours without access to a restroom. His request for a lawyer’s presence was disregarded.

Two witnesses came forward and signed statements asserting Tamon was not the shooter. When this evidence was presented to the court, the judge dismissed the new information. Tamon’s petitions have repeatedly been denied. In the meantime, Tamon needs an effective and conscientious lawyer to handle his appeal.

The quandary Tamon and I are in is agonizing. The legal system in Chicago should be about justice. Instead, the use of torture — and conviction regardless of guilt or innocence — enables detectives and police officers to secure promotions. When new evidence is presented, it is thrown out. The system has no conscience enabling it to right past wrongs. But we will not stop fighting for the victims.

Since becoming co-chair with Joe Iosbaker of CAARPR, our campaign for Tamon has obtained the endorsement of SEIU Local 73, one of the largest unions in Chicago. My plan is to continue resisting and struggling on behalf of Tamon. In the midst of the pandemic, I feel more motivated to act because of the virus-related dangers faced by our incarcerated loved ones. My rage at the injustice and my love for my son make me want to escalate our petitions and our protests.

We are not sufficiently getting through to those that hold the power during this life-or-death situation. How many more mothers must fear that their children will contract COVID-19 behind bars? How many more family members have to grieve the loss of a loved one? How many more incarcerated people have to die before elected officials take action and let our loved ones out of these dangerous prisons?